Diversity in organizations – being different to work for the same goals

Celia de Anca. Director. IE Center for Diversity

1 June 2017

Both communities and individuals are necessary, and that’s why business organizations need to find the balance between individualism, which permits us to grow, and the group, which enables us to act.

Diversity, if handled properly, enables organizations to harness the power of individual differences by bringing them together to work on shared projects. It’s about integrating differences to create truly aspirational teams within societies that function in a collaborative manner.

Companies are already using diversity, and they do it in very different ways. The question being asked is if being different is a good or bad thing, because when someone is different,  they might wonder if they should act like everyone else, adapt to the majority, and “lose” their difference, or whether they should do the opposite, namely keep being different. The conclusion generally reached is that diversity per se is neither good nor bad. However it can certainly be good for organizations that know how to manage it and to channel differences well.  

Integrating differences

Monochronic people are those that manage time in lineal fashion, performing one task after another. Polychronic people, on the other hand, see time as circular and try to do many things at once. They might begin something and then think about something else. There can be clashes between these two types of people. Each kind of person can be good for different tasks, depending on the level of detail, concentration or energy they require. Organizations need both types of people, which is why it is important to know how to integrate them.

Similarly, some people are very optimistic while others are staunch realists. Again, it is better for an organization to have a mix because the right balance is somewhere between the two. The company needs the enthusiasm that some people bring, but also the realism that others can provide, because if not things could simply get too chaotic.

There are also highly collective cultures in which people generally like to work in teams and share everything, while other cultures tend more toward individualism.

Differences need to be integrated and each person needs to feel accepted and valued in some way within the team. If done successfully this translates into a crucial asset although normally, diversity, it has to be said, is a double-edged sword. It can be excellent if managed properly because it brings innovation, flexibility, and a broad range of opinions, but if not done right, there will be chaos and motivation levels will plummet. Hence, being different is neither good nor bad in itself. We live in a world of diversity, but we can glean value from these differences and extract value from these differences by taking those of each person and then putting them all together to achieve a more flexible environment.

Managing difference

We live in a sharing era in which we have many identities, many affiliations with different groups. Differences can make us feel like outsiders, because can also make us want to belong and to show our differences within a group. This is how the idea of belonging came about.

We have been in a tribe from the start of time. A community makes us feel good – safe and sound. However, when a person is in a very closed community, they can hanker for independence. This happens in families, in which sometimes members feel the need to breathe, get out, grow… Nevertheless, in the last fifty years society has become increasingly individualist, and people now have a different need – that of belonging.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt said: “We need solitude to grow and a community to act.” Both the community and the individual are necessary. The important thing is to find a balance between individualism and community. As long as we manage to separate ourselves from each other and grow, we will be able to contribute to the group. Human life needs individualism to grow and to think, and it needs groups to be capable of acting.

Origin, growth and aspiration

We all have many identities pertaining to origin, growth and aspirations.

Identities of origin are basically our legacy. Our sex, culture, language… It is what makes us connect to the past. It doesn’t depend on us, they are things we are born with. We add to these throughout our lives, and those additions are what we call identities of growth. Our friends from high school, our interests, etc., but also our studies, major life choices, etc. While the identities of origin represent our past, our identities of growth represent our present, our emotional attachments.

Finally we have identities of aspiration, which is about really wanting to take our differences into places and situations where we can develop them. Our identities of origin permit us to be connected to the past, to form part of a group. Our identities of growth help us to form friendships, to relate with others. Those of aspiration help us to find people with whom we would like to further our personal development and would like to work closely with.

Corporate strategy should focus on origin, enabling people to eliminate barriers so that they can integrate fully into the organization. But, following on immediately from that, it is essential to create the context in which people can develop their community of aspiration. Different strategies can be used to do this, both for getting it started, which is more the job of the diversity department, and for building aspiration communities, which is more the responsibility of the innovation department.

For example, American Express was the first Company to take diversity seriously. In 1993 it started to ask its employees about specific issues, and twenty years later it was able to have a very good idea of what type of programs and activities are most appreciated, thanks to an excellent evaluation policy.

If a company does not understand its people, their needs and the problems they face, it is impossible to integrate differences.

Diversity is now a fashionable word, and not for the first time. There have been at least three cycles within the last fifteen years during which it has been fashionable. On the one hand, it is good because it appears in debates, in the press, in very difference places… Evolution always takes the form of a spiral. In each circle, we understand a little more about diversity and one of the things that we understand is that communication is important, but we must communicate something real. If it is just hot air, it can lead to conflict, so it is important to communicate in the right way.

Affinity groups

Sometimes groups are formed on a basis of affinity, but this can have a negative effect. Some firms want their employees to be friends, which is a bit complicated because people can only be friends with people who also want to be friends with them, and also, occasionally, when friends get together their conversations about the boss or the organization are not always complimentary.   Hence, in these cases, organizations have no control over these groups. Nevertheless, companies need to understand affinity groups if they are to comprehend the reality of the individuals that make up the company.

In terms of infinity, IBM is probably one of the leaders, given that it has over 240 different affinity groups. It has now come to realize that whenever it favors one of these groups, there is another that would like to avail of the same benefits. In theory, organizations think that affiliation and growth identities can make workers happy, and it’s true that a great deal of information can be obtained from such groups (about related policies, about programs for women, different ethnic groups, different cultures…), but no aspiration groups are created this way. In order to create an aspiration group, it is necessary to consider how to create the right type of environment within the company in which members of the organization can collaborate according to their aspirations, not according to their origin or affiliation, but rather based on a shared project in which they can participate in order to better the company.

For example, video games firm Valve has created a unique structure in which there are no permanent positions. The company has different projects, in such a way that people decide to spend their time on one or another project depending on their personal interests. That is how to create aspiration communities. Each one will be based around a work project, and when the project is completed, they will find a different one to work on.

A collaborative world

We are living in a collaborative world, in which the so-called collaborative or sharing economy has taken root, and where formulas like crowdfunding or the creation of joint solutions are par for the course. After more than a hundred years of individualism, society is prepared for another change of community and organizations are no exception to the rule. Hence, firms will have to also create a type of sharing mechanism so that people can create joint solutions.

Aspiration can be maintained by proposing a project for people to work on, and when they finish it there has to be another one waiting. The first company to do this was Google, whose employees spend 60 % of their time in a fixed position, 30 % on a position of their choosing, and 10 % of their time is free to create something. Innovation requires a great deal of effort because it’s about exploring and exploiting, and when it comes to innovation first you need to define what it is that you want to create – a new product, a new service, business model or process.

Hence, it’s all about having a shared project. It’s no longer about needing one thing or another, but rather about experimenting in a specific field and coming up with something that can contribute to the shared project.  This way, in the end everyone wants to make the project work. No particular group benefits more than another, what benefits is a particular project, and in order to achieve this the firm needs people to feel free within the organization and to also include them on an individual level because, as Hannah Arendt said: “Freedom in a positive sense is possible only among equals”.

Being a woman, origin or aspiration?

Is being a woman the same as being different? And today, is it a question of origin or aspiration? Traditionally, it was said that women had to have feminine qualities. Feminine qualities that each woman has are one thing, but many men can also have them. For example, emotion is supposedly a feminine attribute, but many men are also sensitive. Each person is unique and can have multiple identities. In addition to being a woman, a person has a personality, life experiences, an education, so being a man or a woman is one thing, while being masculine or feminine is another.  

Traditionally, feminine qualities were not highly valued in organizations. Nevertheless the good news in that respect is that today feminine and masculine qualities are equally appreciated in organizations.

Women are different in much the same way that men are different. We are all unique because we have a range of identities and we dip in and out of them all over the course of our lives.

 

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